GOP governors preach pragmatism as way to revive national standing

At a meeting this week in New Orleans, they stress the party will have to be results-oriented. Bush brothers garner attention as new dynasty.

On paper, they all preach a common vision for America: a land of limited government, lower taxes, balanced budgets, and reformed welfare programs.

But there's a big difference in the roles and methods of the Republican governors and those of their colleagues who maintain a fragile majority in the US House and Senate. In the view from the states, congressmen get elected to fight for ideas, governors get elected for results.

The distinctions were on vivid display here at the start of the annual Republican Governors Association (RGA) meeting in New Orleans this week. Governors seemed to relish offering fresh faces and leadership styles to the national GOP in its hour of need.

They did so on a day, coincidentally but significantly, when official Washington was occupied with impeachment hearings. Indeed, a subtext of the meeting here was a basic question: Is the geopolitical center of the party moving to the states?

"A lot of people see Congress as a debate society," says Gov. Frank Keating (R) of Oklahoma, incoming RGA chairman. "At the state level, we work with majority Democratic legislatures and we get things done. The public has the attitude that if you've got to pay for it, you want it to work."

Call it pragmatism or "conservatism with compassion." Just don't call it the "m" word - moderate. But there's a less strident, more constructive tone coming from GOP leaders these days with a greater focus on making government work in real-life issues such as education and jobs.

And the change in tone is clearly coming from the Republican men and women who govern states where some 70 percent of the American people live. They are leaders who have learned to build their support on the political middle ground - and are quick to point out that they held their own in 31 states in elections this fall, while Republicans in Congress lost seats.

"The governors learned a lot from Bill Clinton: You run from the center," says William Schneider, political analyst at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. "If you look at their programs, they look a lot like what Clinton talked about in 1992. But they won't admit it."

Here in New Orleans, nearly every Republican will start out a speech telling of accomplishments in education and welfare reform and then get around to talking about multimillion-dollar tax cuts. What a change from four years ago, when some Republicans vowed to cut programs first and ask questions later. Today, they emphasize that cutting back on bureaucracy, regulations, and taxes does not have to harm the services that most voters consider irreplaceable.

Such an approach is often called moderate, or even "squishy," by die-hard conservatives. But the governors here reject that term, noting that they share the same conservative principles as any member of the GOP.

"Name me a problem and tell me who's come up with solutions that work: It's been Republican governors," says Gov. Tommy Thompson (R) of Wisconsin, the four-termer who's arguably the innovator of much of the social reform being attempted in other states. He was among the first to back welfare-to-work programs as well as school vouchers for private education.

While GOP reformers such as Governor Thompson and Gov. John Engler of Michigan have led the way in reforming education and state welfare programs, much of the attention these days has shifted to two brothers - Gov. George W. Bush of Texas and Gov.-elect Jeb Bush of Florida.

For the press, the hottest ticket in town was an informal chat with the Bush brothers on Wednesday, the first time the two governors had seen each other since the election. As brothers do, they traded playful barbs, and shared a vision of a kinder, gentler conservatism that could have been pushed by their father, former President George Bush.

They answered endless questions about George W.'s presidential aspirations (he hasn't made up his mind yet, but probably will early next year) and just how much advice they receive from their famous parents. "I don't get a lot of advice, really," says Jeb. "But I'd accept all the advice I can get from my mother, my dad, my brothers and sisters."

Separately, George W., jokes, "I've been telling my brother what to do for 45 years now, and he still doesn't listen to me."

But while these two brothers don't necessarily break new ground in terms of policy, they do offer an inclusive political style others appear eager to emulate. The way to attract blacks and Hispanics into the GOP, says Jeb, is to "simply talk with them, push capitalism, advocate free enterprise. Put aside race for a moment and look at it from a question of income. Poor people don't want rich people's money. Poor people want their own money."

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.